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Germany: Students Call For Better Education

Bonn, 27 November 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Tens of thousands of German students are expected to join a protest march in Bonn today demanding that the Federal Government provide more money, more professors and more classrooms for universities and higher schools.

The march is the climax of weeks of protests which have seen students at 30 universities and higher schools take to the streets demanding a better education in better conditions. In Berlin alone more than 10,000 students took part in yesterday's demonstrations. Other cities where there were big demonstrations included Heidelberg, Freiburg and Regensburg.

The protests are most fierce in Berlin but generally they all have the same message. Students wave banners demanding that the Government's austerity program stop at the university gates.

Many of the banners carry a simple message: "let me study". Others declare: "Education Cuts Hurt Our Country." Many banners protest at the Government's decision to spend around 23 billion marks on a new fighter plane while cutting student grants.

The protesters say the problems at Germany's universities and technical higher schools have been known for years but nothing has been done about them. Students complain of overcrowded class rooms, a shortage of text books, limited facilities at libraries and not enough professors. Student grants, which were never overly-generous, have also been cut sharply.

A common complaint is that professors no longer have the time to give the tutorials and the one-on-one assistance which used to be common. Criticism of the university libraries is widespread. Even a famous university like Tuebingen often has only one copy of an essential book in its library and students may have to wait for weeks to read it. As a result, copying is common at German university libraries although librarians complain that this soon destroys the books.

A recent German television program pointed-up the shortcomings by comparing German and American universities. Germans who had studied in the U.S. spoke of the personal tuition they received from professors and the attention paid to arranging tutorials and specialized study in small groups. They said the better universities almost always had several copies of books frequently required for a course of study. American students on the program said conditions at home were really far from perfect but agreed they were better than in Germany.

The protests have won a wide degree of support in Germany where universities enjoy an important role in society. Academicians say the situation is truly poor and will get worse unless corrective measure are taken quickly.

This year there are 1,825,000 students at German universities although there are facilities for only about 970,000. By the year 2000 the number of students is expected to rise to around 2.3 million -- considerably exacerbating the current problems.

It is an unusual situation because most politicians have expressed understanding for some of the student demands while quickly adding that they can do little more to alleviate the situation because of the nation's economic crisis. It was the Federal education minister who said: "The students don't want revolution. They just want better conditions for their studies, including more professors and better libraries." He said the Federal Government had already agreed to provide an extra 3.6 thousand million marks by the year 2000 for the universities and higher schools. But he added that was all it could do at present.

Even the Federal Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, has publicly expressed sympathy. He told the Federal parliament yesterday that many of the student demands were justified. But Kohl declined to consider more federal financing. He told parliament that the provincial governments were responsible for 90 per cent of university financing and if more money was needed it should come from the provinces.

The provincial governments quickly retorted that they were already suffering because Kohl's Government has reduced the money they receive from the Federal budget and there was little money to assist the universities. Only the province of Rhineland-Pfalz, which is ruled by the opposition social democrats, has offered to find the money for more tutors..

Most experts believe that despite the protests little will change in the near future. The Kohl Government supports education and has said frequently that Germany must have a well-educated population otherwise it will fall behind in world competition. But it is a fact that the nation is undergoing an economic crisis and money is not as plentiful as it once was -- and not only for education. Tax income has fallen sharply, partly because the 4.3 million unemployed do not pay taxes. The Government says it fears the number of unemployed could rise to around five million in the next few months, which means an even deeper tax shortfall.

But many experts believe the universities should also be more open to internal reforms which could save money. Most faculties are run efficiently and are exam-oriented. But it still requires six or even seven years of study to become a school teacher while in other countries the same result is reached in about three years. There is a similar problem in some other faculties. In several universities it is still possible for a German to remain a student for many years without being pushed to take final exams.

The protests have pointed-up the problems. What is needed now is the political will to do something about them. And, of course, the money.